Bankstown police officer Danny Mikati called a “Signal 1” – officer down or needing urgent help – only once in his career.
A day after the Cronulla riots, rumour had spread that Maroubra’s Bra Boys were going to bomb Lakemba Mosque and 1000 people had turned up to defend it.
As Italian-Australians and Greek-Australians flew up from Melbourne to join what had quickly become an “ethnics v Aussies” conflict, the crowd swelled from six people to hundreds. Just one police officer was there, Bankstown’s Senior Constable Mikati.
When a freelance journalist arrived and started filming the mosque, the crowd suddenly turned on him. Mikati sprinted ahead and shepherded the journalist into a car, only to turn and see the crowd baying for him, yelling “Get the cop! Get the cop!”
“All I had time to say was ‘Bankstown 85 – urgent’,” he says. “I said a little prayer in my head and thought, ‘OK, this is how it ends.’ “
But as they were running at him, men from the Muslim community who knew Mikati formed a human chain around him. “They were copping shopping trolleys, baseball bats to the back of their head, saying ‘No one touches him!’ “
It is an indication of Mikati’s status in the Muslim community that young men were prepared to risk their lives for him and take on a frenzied, angry mob.
Mikati, 40, spent 17 years on the road as a police officer, rising to the rank of sergeant and developing a reputation as the Muslim community’s cop. There are few people in south-west Sydney who wouldn’t know his name.
Whether Mikati liked it or not, it led to him becoming something of a fixer in the community; mediating between the underworld and their standover victims, having late night Facebook chats with terrorists, and fielding tip-offs about who would be next to be murdered.
But, after almost 20 years of seeing vulnerable young people turning to crime, suicide, drug addiction and radicalisation, Mikati quit the force last month.
He has taken up a post as chief executive of Bright Employment, a social enterprise that provides training and job placement in hospitality and cleaning industries for migrants, refugees and marginalised young people.
“I needed to find something where I had a different impact,” he says over lunch at Sydney Olympic Park’s Giants Cafe, where some of the organisation’s young people work serving the professional athletes who come through the doors and receiving training in the kitchen.
“I’ve spent my life dealing with the worst of the worst,” says Mikati. “I know what these people go through and what breaks them … and I know what difference it can make to give someone a sense of purpose. That was the trigger for me to leave a 17-year career. Now I can do something on the other side of the equation.”
Bright Employment is pushing a unique model that could have huge implications for the nation’s employment if it is adopted by other industries, says head chef and trainer Ty Bellingham, who ran Sydney’s hatted Sailor’s Thai for six years.
He recently left a career running top restaurants in New York and Sydney to teach disadvantaged people how to work in kitchens.
“If this works, it’s a game-changer,” he says.
The organisation combines industry-specific training with job placement, and assigns case workers along the way. They get students job-ready in a few weeks then help to scout restaurants, cafes and hotels to employ them.
The aim is to reduce both welfare dependency and the shortfall of hospitality jobs that is expected to reach 123,000 by 2020.
“When I was working at Sailor’s Thai, I couldn’t get anyone to come and do the job,” Bellingham says. “I’d put ads in the paper … and no one was turing up for the interview. Two, three, six months go by and still I can’t get that chef to walk in the door. I thought, there’s gotta be something to this.”
An interest in forensics led Mikati, then a young medical science student, to take a scholarship with the police.
His community conscience meant he was the only person in his graduating class to ask to be stationed at Bankstown, his home patch and the place he went on to spend 14 years of his career.
He witnessed a murder on his second day on the job, in 1999. He was called to four murder scenes before his first shoplifting job, such was the blood-letting across south-west Sydney at the time.
He can speak Arabic, which meant he was drafted into many strike forces ahead of his time and, despite not being based in counter-terrorism, he says there wasn’t a major terrorism conviction he wasn’t involved in.
He’d have locals pointing out suspects to him. He’d be invited into houses rather than needing to obtain a search warrant.
He barely slept for two weeks after the Lindt Cafe siege in December 2014, driving around in his own car, speaking to people, quelling tensions, gathering information, strengthening relationships.
“I was too embedded in the community to the point where, if the top brass wanted to go visit a community leader, I’d know before he was coming,” Mikati says. “[The leader] would’ve called me to ask, ‘do I trust this guy?'”
Asked if he felt like he straddled two worlds, he says: “In the beginning, yes, but I took a different approach. I embraced the profile and tried to work for the community instead. But when the terrorism stuff started, that made things very hard.”
There was a threat on his life from Islamic State last year, spread by radical London preacher Abu Haleema who perpetuated the hardline belief that it is forbidden to enforce a law other than Islamic law.
At the time, Mikati was receiving Facebook messages from extremists. He chatted back and forth, refuting arguments with verses from the Koran, something which Mikati was adept in, having minored in Arab and Islamic studies while studying medical science at the University of Sydney in the ’90s.
Mikati, the son of an atheist who converted last year, found Islam during his final year of school, and says his religion was often “the ace I had up my sleeve”.
He used it in his domestic violence work, where he made his greatest mark with the police, spending eight years as a domestic violence prevention officer at a time when Bankstown would receive 300 reports each month.
“I’d have the husband telling me ‘Oh, because [of] my religion’ and I’d say ‘Your religion says this, this and this. I’ve spent half my life studying it’.”
He saw the impact absent fathering and a lack of belonging had on young people. It led him to take on roles running the Bankstown PCYC and directing AusRelief, a charity providing local and international relief as well as drug addiction initiatives.
And he saw the devastation too, winning a Commissioner’s Medal of Courage for tackling a father who set himself on fire in 2006 in a bid to blow up his Birrong home and kill his family.
First on the scene, Mikati burst into the house when he smelled kerosene. When he showed his badge, the man ignited two lighters, sending a fireball into the roof.
Mikati and his partner jumped on him, smothering him in sheets and pillows. The man dislocated his thumbs as he continually tried to reignite himself, burning Mikati’s hands.
“There was kerosene in the whole house, he’d left a suicide note in the bedroom saying, ‘I’m taking everyone with me’, he recalls. “The firies said ’10, 15 seconds the whole house would’ve exploded’.”
The father-of-three won’t miss doing laps around his street when he gets home to make sure no one is following him. Nor the line of people outside the PCYC, wanting him to talk to the people extorting their business or recruiting their son.
It’s little surprise that his level of connectedness gave way to his new job. Bright Employment’s founder Tim Davies, a former hedge fund manager who started the enterprise after watching SBS’ Go Back To Where You Came From, kept coming to the station, asking Mikati to put him in touch with people.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave but it wasn’t terribly hard either,” he says. “For me, it’s never been what I do, it’s been why I do it.”
As for Bankstown? “The crime has definitely plummeted and there’s a lot more [community] services there but there’s still a long way to go,” he says.
“The problem in Bankstown is [the services are] built on special individuals. When they go there’s no succession plan, that’s the problem. A few key people have moved on and it’s just left a void.”
He won’t admit, it but he’s undoubtedly one of them.